Jeff Wagg

20Jan/123

Thoughts on Costa Concordia

From Wikipedia, Creative Commons

I've waited a few days to post my thoughts about this incident so that more of the facts could precipiate out of the solution of media speculation and conflicting stories.

Costa Concordia was built in 2006 in Italy. She was the largest ship every built in Italy, had an Italian captain, and sailed a regular route of Italian ports. Capsizing near Giglio in Italy makes this a uniquely Italian disaster. She cost nearly $600,000,000 to construct – very near the cost of Walt Disney World if one doesn't adjust for inflation.

It is easily the worst cruise ship disaster since the Andrea Doria.

Many people have been asking me questions about the disaster, and while I'm not an expert on much, I do know the cruising world a bit. I've compiled some of the questions here in the form of a mock interview.

1) How can this happen with all the modern equipment we have?

In the end, someone is controlling the wheel (actually a joystick) and if the ship hits something, bad things happen. Ships like this have a course set and someone on the bridge at all times makes sure the ship is following that course. If the ship veers of the course, alarms sound. At the time of this incident, the ship was being manually controlled to come very close to the shore, in a maneuver known as a "salute."  Reports vary as to weather this was being done to honor the head waiter's birthday, or another captain who lived ashore. It hardly matters – it was done.

The odd thing is, this wasn't the first time the ship had done this. Reports are saying the ship had done this five times in the past, with the same captain. Lloyds List proves this with a track of the ship's course in August.

I doubt the captain consulted a chart before making this departure from the official course. He probably did the first time, saw that it was deep water (the seafloor drops off rapidly just off the shore of this island) and sailed the same route again. In the end, just 10 more feet of water  or 10 more feet of distance would have let the ship pass by unharmed.

The ship has depth sensors and the like, but there's nothing that's going to protect a ship from a pinnacle of rock while she's underway. The captain simply took his vessel into hazardous waters, and many people have paid the price.

2) Have we learned nothing since Titanic?

Oh, we've learned quite a bit since Titanic, and a lot of it FROM Titanic. The Titanic disaster was caused by one simple problem: they didn't think it was possible for this ship to sink. Hitting the iceberg was a gross error in navigation, but the large loss of life was due to poor planning. Originally, the ship was to have many more lifeboats, but they were removed because they made the ship less attractive. This was the pride of the White Star Line and it had to look impressive, so much so that one of the smoke stacks is actually just a decoration. (Great trivia question.) Since the ship stayed mostly upright for hours, an orderly evacuation into ample lifeboats could have resulted in no lives lost. Instead, the inadequate number of boats and rafts, the lack of training and the lack of preparation lead to a huge loss of life (1,514).

Costa Concordia is a different situation. The ship has more than enough lifeboats and rafts (twice as many, by international law). Everyone is required to undergo a lifeboat drill. Though there were reports that there was no drill, I'm confident there was. It's required within 24 hours of sailing by SOLAS - Safety Of Live At Sea, and International set of guidelines that all cruise lines follow. It was put into place directly because of Titianic.

Some passengers did not get on at the original point of embarkation, meaning they would have missed the lifeboat drill. In such a case, they're supposed to get a briefing from a crew member, but the ship doesn't re-run the lifeboat drill just because a couple of people got on in a port.

Two big problems though: there were at least nine languages spoken on the ship, making emergency communications extremely difficult. And there was the small issue that the ship rolled on its side, effectively removing any ability to deploy lifeboats and rafts.

Lifeboats and rafts depend on gravity to lower them, and on a capsized ship, that doesn't work too well. You can see pictures of life rafts caught on the side of the ship. However, they were close enough to shore that the launched lifeboats could offer taxi service to people if they could only get off the ship. Considering that half of the muster stations were underwater, and the other half useless, it's not surprising there was chaos.

3) Who's really at fault here?

The captain, without any doubt, is responsible for the disaster. It is his job description. There is much conjecture about how he got off the ship, etc, but this is what we do know:

a) He was in control of the vessel when it hit the rocks.

b) The course chosen was not part of the "official" course, however, it was probably sanctioned by Costa, given that it had been used up to five times before.

c) He did not inform the Coast Guard of the enormity of the disaster either because he didn't know how bad it was (unlikely), or because he was hoping to salvage the situation somehow. Hopefully, this will come out in court.

d) He left the ship before the evacuation was complete. He says this was due to him "tripping," but that seems so fanciful that I actually wonder if it's true. And while he could have possibly coordinated the evacuation from a lifeboat, it seems that he did not.

e) "The rock wasn't on the map" isn't much of an excuse. If you take your vessel off the approved course, you are responsible for any obstacle, whether its on a chart or not.

3) What would you have done if you were on the ship?

Who can say? My guess is that I would have followed instructions insofar as was possible, and if I was still on the ship when it flipped, I would have gotten off any way I could have. I'd like to think that I would have helped other people, but there is really no preparation you can make for something like this.

I think the crew were in a similar situation. Since there isn't a lot you can do if the ship capsizes, I don't think they had much training on it. Training's focussed on getting people into the lifeboats and rafts. If that's not possible, they'd be expected to use their wits and get people off as safely as possible. I suspect that's exactly what happened.

I'm a bit miffed with the press for repeating claims that the crew did nothing. I would be very surprised if that were true, and indeed there are stories about the injured purser getting people to safety only to get trapped himself.

4) Do you think this will have a major impact on cruising?

Well, no, not really. I've been reading some of the trade press and they're saying that while this happened at the height of "wave season," when most bookings occur, it actually might increase revenue for travel agents. How? Two factors: 1) a very large ship has been taken out of service, meaning there are fewer cabins to sell and that tends to drive prices up... and 2) more people know about cruising now, so they may be interested.

That may seem counterintuitive, but things do work that way sometimes.

One change I do expect to see is more control over lifeboat drills. Recently, we've noticed a pattern where passengers weren't required to put on their life jackets for the drills. While this makes the drill much easier (and I'd argue, reduces injuries), it creates less of a sense of "hey this is important" and now, people are going to expect that. Also, I wouldn't be surprised if there was some thought given to how to get people off a capsized vessel.

There is some talk of moving ships away from sensitive areas, but that talk is always happening, and usually the money wins. Having 4,000 people descend on your village with tourist money is hard to turn down.

Other than that though, I expect cruising to continue as normal.

5) After this, are you at all concerned about the safety of cruising?

Nope, not really. While I do take note of the fact that one person's poor decision can cause a major disaster, that's how we are in most of our daily activities.

Here are some stats that put things into perspective:

Number of cruise ships: 456

Number of passengers at sea at any given time: about 400,000

Number of passengers sailing in 2011: 19,000,000

Your odds of having an evacuation at sea? Infinitesimal.

6) But I hear about ships sinking and capsizing all the time!

Not from cruise ships you don't. You might hear about overcrowded ferries sinking, but they are not cruise ships. The media often has a hard time telling the difference. The last major incident with a cruise ship was Carnival Splendour (Concordia's sister ship) in 2010. Major fire at sea, ship lost power... number of fatalities: zero. Other than that, there have been a few small incidents here and there, but there really haven't been any major disasters since the Prinsendaam in 1980 (no major injuries or loss of life)  or the Andrea Doria in 1953. My parents are sailing on the NEW Prinsendaam as I type this. Yes - it's been nearly 60 years since the last cruise ship disaster with significant loss of life. You are probably safer on a ship than at home or at work and you're certainly safer than in your car, but when has that ever stopped you from running out for an ice cream?

I'll continue to follow the stories. I'm very curious as to whether they'll be able to salvage her and if she'll ever sail again as a Costa ship. She was their top-of-the-line, so there's going to be a major shake up. My personal opinion: Costa is not the best line out there. I found their product to be gaudy with too little attention paid to the food, though the pricing was excellent.

It's heart-wrenching for me to watch passengers scrambling over her beached hull when only hours before they were enjoying their vacation. It could happen to any of us at any time, which is all the more reason NOT to stay home, but to actually get out there and experience things. As my father is fond of saying, "life runs out of 'next years'" and I, for one, take that advice to heart.

I'm happy to talk about this more as I find it very interesting. You can reach me at jeff@wagg.com.

Filed under: Original 3 Comments